Since I published my original short article on this subject, a number of you have asked me to make some clarifications and extensions. I thought it appropriate to deal with some of those today.
Last August on this site, Dr Dave pointed us to a speech made by Ronald Reagan in 1964 whilst campaigning for Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. It enunciates the principles of Libertarianism so well I thought it worth putting at the head of today’s thread. As Dave said at the time, it’s well worth half an hour of your life to watch. If you prefer, you can read the transcript here (but take my advice and watch the clip – Ronnie Reagan really was the last of the great twentieth-century orators).
Libertarianism vs Conservatism
In my original article, I gave a definition of conservatism as the belief that change in any society can only take place within its own historical and cultural context. It is often said in this regard that change should be evolutionary, not revolutionary.
For this reason, conservatism as a political philosophy is very much a relative term, and not based on any philosophical or ideological absolutes. I know many of you describe yourselves as conservatives rather than Libertarians. I don’t doubt that you are. But that’s because you happen to live in a (nominally, at least) Western, capitalist democracy, and I suspect what you really mean is that you subscribe to the principles of Western capitalism and democracy. In the early 1980s, to take a counter-example, a Soviet party commisar who supported the old order of the Brezhnev era, and opposed Mikhail Gorbachev’s programs of glasnost and perestroika, would also have been regarded as a conservative. And indeed, was described as such in the western media at the time. A conservative Chinese politician and a conservative Saudi politician would hold views on free speech and the place of women respectively, that most of you would almost certainly find abhorrent.
Like any relative philosophy, conservatism can be taken to arbitrarily extreme lengths: a traditionalist opposes any change, valuing the status quo as a function of its longevity, while a reactionary goes even further, seeking to overturn recent changes to return to some status quo ante. I grant you though, in modern parlance the term conservative is used interchangeably (albeit inaccurately) with the political Right.
The opposite of a conservative, of course, is a progressive. Progressives care little for historical or cultural contexts, and seek immediate change wherever and whenever they see fit, according to whatever philosophy they might hold. Again, progressivism is a relative term, and thus can similarly be followed logically to whatever extreme you wish. The terms radical and revolutionary are the corolloraries of traditionalist and reactionary respectively. And correspondingly, progressivism in modern usage is employed loosely and interchangeably with the political Left. It’s a kind of Cold War anachronism, harking back to the days of fears of communist threats to the West and so forth. Socialism, being ostensibly of the Left, was the enemy, and those who opposed its influence (literally, conservative) aligned themselves, and found common cause, with the political Right.
Libertarianism, of course, dealing as it does with the relationship between citizen and state, is fundamentally neither conservative nor progressive. Wars have been fought over liberty: some seeking it, some defending it, others seeking to deprive others of it. A Libertarian will be as conservative or progressive as needed, depending on the society in which he finds himself.
A Libertarian will tell you that we all need to agree on which side of public roads we are to drive: any diehard individualists who disagree will just have to go and build their own private road, and motor away on their own side to their heart’s content. An anarchist, by contrast, will tell you that you need to learn to swerve.
Unlike conservatism, anarchy, as a political philosophy, is based on an absolute principle: the elimination of the state entirely. Given that you must be almost militantly ignorant of human nature, with its susceptibility to egotism and power, to believe in it at all, and given that no anarchic society has stood the test of time, anywhere, ever, anarchy in my experience is generally used as a stalking horse for something else entirely. What self-proclaimed anarchists tend to want is lawlessness; licence of some sort or another (I’ll get back to this in a moment). But they’re never consistent about it; they seem to want all the protections provided by the law, but none of its restrictions. A bit like the “anarcho-syndicalist commune”:
“Left-Libertarianism” and “Right-Libertarianism”
I don’t like either of these terms, even though GE came perilously close to using the latter one yesterday. And I’ll tell you why. As I’ve said here many times, the terms left-wing and right-wing refer to what type of liberties you’re prepared to relinquish to the state, as depicted in the Nolan Chart. They imply a compromise, trading liberty for either state largesse or a state-imposed moral code. For people who are prepared to give away either economic or personal liberty to the state, to expropriate the term Libertarian is a rank contradiction in terms (of course, James is hardly a right-winger, as many of his posts over the last year make abundantly clear; I do see what he was getting at, though, and given how Libertarianism seems to have overtaken science scepticism as the focus of trolls’ outrage on his blog, the sentiment is understandable).
“Left-libertarian” is generally code for someone who is a bit of a mixture of communist and anarchist (like the fellow in the Monty-Python clip above). I remember one of JD’s posters describing himself as left-libertarian: English chap from Liverpool calling himself TheBNPWantsToStealMyPassport (due to his Caribbean heritage, I believe). He asserted that property was the biggest problem in society, and to his credit put up some pretty cogent arguments in favour of his thesis. I’ve invited him round here before to debate the issue; if any of you run into him, pass on my cordial invitation to drop by.
Without getting too sidetracked, Libertarians view the upholding of the law of the land (which exists to protect life and limb, liberty and private property) as one of the central legitimate rôles of government, which places Libertarianism squarely against anarchy.
In the main though, so-called left-libertarians appear to be mainly your garden-variety rent-seekers and scroungers: people, in other words, who don’t want to work for a living, or at any rate do all they can to shield the value of their work from the judgement of the free market. You find them in government-appointed consultancies and quangos; pounding the pavements for Greenpeace or the like; or joining in as many protest marches as possible: the more violent, it would seem, the better. Then they’re the first to complain about police brutality, of course!
And then there are those who, while waving the Libertarian flag, seek license to indulge their anti-social behaviours to the detriment of others. Msher asked me the other day about the fact that several organised paedophilia advocacy groups use the principles of Libertarianism to try to legitimize their leanings.
Well, very few would disagree that people of that ilk are about as reprehensible as you can get. And they don’t understand the philosophy of Libertarianism at all, founded as it is on a mutual respect for the liberties of others. Those who carelessly destroy the lives of children in a selfish pursuit of their own lusts are about as far removed from Libertarianism as you can get, besides being, in the eyes of many, a pretty good advertisement for the reintroduction of the death penalty.
More Libertarian Than Thou
There’s no one single prophet or guru on Libertarianism, any more that there is one single bible of it. The one-sentence definition I originally gave offers scope for Libertarianism to be a pretty broad church, and indeed Libertarians have widely varying positions on many issues; exploring these is this site’s very raison d’être. In economics, to take one example, you have the Austrian-school ideologues, those who promote a return to the gold standard and/or competing currencies issued by private banks. You have diverse opinions on free trade, immigration, abortion, you name it. And I’ll eventually get around to canvassing most if not all of these issues on this forum. No individual (and certainly not me) can claim to be the fountain of all wisdom on this philosophy. Though many do, as if there was some sort of canon, or magisterium, of Libertarianism. Well, there isn’t.
That’s probably enough discussion points for one thread. I’ll check in regularly and make sure no comments get held up too long.
Excellent piece! Thank you for including Reagan’s speech. As an American I can’t help but feel a visceral response every time I listen to it. This speech was made 47 years ago and it still rings true today. You’ll notice there are no teleprompters. Compare and contrast to the buffoon we have in the White House today. It’s significant to note that Reagan’s warnings were made in 1964. It’s much, much worse today. And not just for the USA, but for the entire “free world” (as we used to call ourselves). I was just a little kid at the time but now as an aging adult I sometimes wonder how the world might be different today had Barry Goldwater won the election in 1964. I don’t think there would ever have been a significant US presence in Vietnam had LBJ not been elected. Further, LBJ was elected primarily because JFK was assassinated.
Reagan was extolling what were, at the time, “conservative” values. In truth they were Libertarian values. He just didn’t touch on some of the more controversial libertarian issues because they were non-issues in 1964. The gun control act didn’t come around until 1968, the Controlled Substance act until 1970, and abortion not until 1973. Reagan was speaking to core issues, not the issues of special interest groups. Libertarianism shines on these core issues. What troubles me is that today’s Republicans bear little resemblance to the resolve and belief that made Ronald Reagan the greatest American President of modern times.
Sorry, but Reagan was MY man. He came into office right when I got out of school. I’ve never been so fond of a US President as I was of him:
Sorry, but when Reagan was elected I was still a teenager, and way left of centre. I didn’t like him at all. Oppressive bastard, reminded me of my parents, he did.
Some years later, I grew up – Oz
Huh. When I was a teenager I’m not sure I could name the Prime Minister or President of any other country except perhaps the USSR. I had too much else going on in my life to be bothered with international politics. How much influence could US politics and elected officials have had in the life of an Australian teenager in the early 80s? You’d be surprised – but that’s a story for another day – Oz I loved Reagan because the public loved Reagan yet the media hated him. It drove the media butthole crazy that the “stupid” public was not obeying their commends. Reagan was to be hated and despised, not liked and admired. I believe this paradox caused several media folks to come down with rabies.
Reagan was President during some of the best years of my life. His presidency, rather than those of Carter, Clinton and Obama actually made the world a safer place. The whole rest of the world owes a debt of gratitude to Reagan. If we could find room on Mt. Rushmore, he would be there.
Were it not for this site I wouldn’t know (nor care) who the PM of Australia is. Even still…I’m willing to trade you straight up for ol’ jug ears.
A significant proportion of Australians would , right now, be willing to trade Julia Gillard for a couple of well-used Holdens.
I suspect these blokes might disagree… well OK, maybe for a reconditioned alternator or hubcap – Oz 😉
Yeah…but would they stoop to an Obama? I’d be willing to trade them our committed socialist for their committed socialist any day if I could just silence the cries of racism.
That is excellent. I’m afraid my connection is a bit slow to get through the Reagan speech tonight.
I was in “progressive” or at least “pacifist” company when Reagan became President, I remember anti Nuke pictures of him shown in front of a mushroom cloud, of course to those same anti nuke groups, the Soviets only wanted peace(tm)…
Later on, I couldn’t take Reagan seriously after seeing Spitting Image’s satire of him.
With hindsight, I can appreciate the man and his achievements. Far greater achievements than those of Thatcher, who still managed to increase the share of GDP going to the state, and to increase the reach of the state.
Comparing Reagan to the current pResident, no contest. that “old cowboy” who was “going to start a nuclear war” left office with the World a far safer place than when he took office. The big Zero? well, he has no shortage of crises never to let go to waste.
Oz, you say libertarianism is now the target for the trolls?
Take a look at the link, it describes the kind of anti libertarian and anti conservative propaganda being used in US Federal (Department of Homeland Security) training sessions for county and state level cops.
Hat tips to Mike at Sipsey Street, and also Irons in the Fire for that.
Sipsey Street is continuing its coverage of the “Gunwalker” scandal.
Like Climategate, “Gunwalker” would never have reached a wider audience without bloggers. Mike, at Sipsey Street and David, at War on Guns, are the bloggers who broke the story.
Well I started off a typical lefty coming from the old labour heartlands but at a time when a work ethic counted long before the dole culture took hold. My road to Damascus moment came when the IRA bombed the Brighton hotel where a lot of the government were staying for the annual Tory conference.
From that point my sympathy’s swung right however I refuse to be pigeon holed or actually join any party that way I have whole smorgasbord of ideas to choose from.
Here is Ronnie for you….
Dr Dave, thanks for the video of Reagan’s wit which made me laugh. I love Reagan myself.